Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder which is characterised by extreme, recurrent panic attacks that are disabling in nature.

What is a panic attack?

Panic attacks are sudden surges of intense fear, panic or a sense of danger that occurs when no “real” threat is apparent. They are brief, unexpected episodes of overwhelming anxiety that may typically last for a few minutes but can feel longer to the person who is experiencing the panic attack.

Some common signs of a panic attack are:

Why do panic attacks occur?

The physical symptoms behind panic attacks are caused by our body’s “fight or flight” response, which is an automatic reaction that is activated when we are faced with a perceived stressor. The “fight or flight” response is an important physiological mechanism that has evolved as a way of helping us protect ourselves in life-threatening situations, where hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released by our bodies in order to put us on high alert so that we can best confront danger.

However, panic attacks are differentiated by the fact that they usually occur when there is no actual threat of harm. Experiencing a panic attack can indicate that a person’s natural stress response system has become dysregulated.

How do panic attacks relate to panic disorder?

Not everyone who experiences a panic attack has panic disorder. People with panic disorder experience the following symptoms related to panic attacks:

  • Recurring panic attacks that come on unexpectedly
  • Worry about having another panic attack for at least a month after having a panic attack
  • Engage in avoidance behaviours in an attempt to evade panic attacks

How can the psychologists at Cova Psychology help treat panic disorder?

Our psychologists at Cova Psychology are highly trained in delivering therapy for panic disorder using one or a combination of the following evidence-based therapeutic modalities:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT is an exceptionally well-researched therapeutic approach for treating panic disorder. Using CBT, our clinicians can help you to understand and identify any triggers that may be contributing to panic attacks, explore and challenge any relevant negative beliefs and thought patterns, and replacing any avoidance behaviours with different coping skills to help you better manage the anxieties associated with panic disorder.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT is also strongly supported by research as an effective therapeutic approach for panic disorder. Interestingly, the psychologist who invented ACT (Steven Hayes) was inspired to develop this form of therapy through his own experiences with panic disorder. Using ACT, our clinicians can support you in shifting the way that you relate to the physical sensations of anxiety by promoting a nonjudgmental stance.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies: During mindfulness-based therapy sessions, our clinicians can provide a safe space for you to practise different techniques that activate the “relaxation response”, in order for you to apply these strategies in relation to your panic disorder symptoms.
  • Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT): DBT is a skills based therapy and many of the strategies can be applied to help manage panic attacks. Emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills in particular can be used to assist in managing symptoms of fight flight response.
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR): Sometimes panic disorder is underpinned by traumatic experiences which may benefit from processing with a trauma therapy such as EMDR. Our Melbourne psychologists are trained to assess and treat psychological trauma and related issues, including panic disorder.

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